I fought against writing a blog about the Paralympics because I know it will cost me friends! Most have strong feelings one way or another about the Paralympics and of course expect me to agree with them.
However, it’s not often I sit on the fence about anything disability-related, but I really have very mixed feelings about the Paralympics. Reading over the last couple of weeks many, many articles on the subject written by other disabled commentators, opinions seem equally divided, with some believing that attitudes really might change for the better, and others that the Paralympics do disabled people a huge disservice. I remain unconvinced by either side. Here, if anyone is interested at all, are some of my fairly random thoughts on the matter:
As a disabled person, I actually did find the sheer determination, hard work and achievements of these world class athletes inspiring (and I feel myself cringing and feeling apologetic as I say that word – see “Bad” lower down!). I admire the guts and hard work put in by all of the athletes, and I found it all quite emotional.
It was helpful in demonstrating the range of disabilities – there is a tendency for people to automatically think “wheelchair” when the word disability is mentioned, and this event reminded people that disability includes visual impairments, amputees, dwarfism and a whole range of other impairments. However, by definition all of the athletes were physically fit and therefore many impairments would not have been mentioned – ME, mental health issues, and very few learning disabilities. And, of course, no deaf or hearing-impaired athletes.
It challenged the stereotype that disabled people can’t achieve. It helped us focus on what these athletes could do rather than what they couldn’t – a message I’m constantly trying to get across to employers.
For a few days, the general public weren’t purely thinking of disabled people as benefit scroungers, and therefore legitimate targets for hate crime.
It forced our capital city to think about accessibility issues across the infrastructure, particularly including transport. For a couple of weeks it was less difficult for disabled people to travel around London, with lots of volunteers and portable ramps.
One of the long-standing problems has been that disabled people are, for some reason, seen as “saints or sinners” (there is even a television programme about us with that name). A disabled person can’t be an ordinary person getting on with their lives as best as they can, they must either be a benefit scrounger, or a superhuman hero. I suspect that less than 1 % of us disabled folk fall into either category, but somehow the Paralympics perpetuate (Channel 4 even using the term Superhuman!) the myth. The 98% of us ordinary disabled people remain invisible. We don’t want to be thought of as “inspiring” or “brave” or “courageous” (hence my comment above) – not one of us chose to be disabled.
For those who believe the lies about most disabled people being benefit scroungers (in reality it’s less than 1%), I have heard people suggest, almost seriously, that if disabled people just put a bit of effort in they could also be world class athletes, let alone get a job. This is as ridiculous as suggesting that with a bit of effort, every man in the street could beat Usain Bolt!
The Paralympics, held separately from the Olympics, emphasises the “separateness” of disabled people – almost an after thought. The swift u-turn about gold medallists being on their own postage stamp, the Paralympic torch being silver not gold (denoting second best) and many other indications that these weren’t as good as the “real” Olympics.
The fact that despite “inspiring a generation”, most sports facilities in Britain are inaccessible.
The fact that despite the Prime Minister publically praising the Paralympian athletes, he will still be stripping 500,000 disabled people (almost certainly including many of the athletes he so admires) of Disability Living Allowance.
Atos, the company tasked with declaring seriously sick and disabled people “fit for work” and pushing many disabled people further into poverty (32 people a week died last year after this company declared them “fit for work”) were also sponsors of the Paralympics. Yes, I know they are only “following orders” – but where have we heard that before?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer being booed by the crowds – the first boos heard by an exceptionally kind and welcoming audience!
If I had to come off the fence, on balance I’m for the Paralypics – why shouldn’t disabled people who love sport have the same opportunity to compete in such a prestigious event as non-disabled people? And if it encourages those disabled people who enjoy and are able to take part in sport to do so, then that’s good too. However – I feel both forms of Olympics should run at the same time (have a one month event rather than two separate events), and I feel that we should accord all disabled people the respect, admiration, rights, resources and opportunities as the talented athletes we have been watching. Long after they have gone back into training, and the volunteers and portable ramps have long disappeared – let’s make sure the legacy of the Paralympics is that we change how we view disabled people – not just on the sportsfield, but also in the workplace, the boardroom, the Houses of Commons and Lords, the theatre, the concert hall, and indeed in every area of life accessible to non-disabled people. Let’s include all disabled people in everyday life – not just the sporty ones.
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